Mekons biography 3


Formed Leeds, England, 1977.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Mekons is their longevity. A mixed bag of art students, who thought it might be a laugh to mess around with the Gang of Four's equipment while they were in the pub, they eventually outlived not only their mentors, but pretty much every other new wave band as well.

Formed in the incendiary atmosphere of Leeds' 1977 race riots, The Mekons served their political apprenticeship with fellow Rock Against Racism stalwarts Delta 5, Another Colour and the Expelaires. Racist violence at their early gigs crystallized an uncompromisingly radical attitude, which remains intact after innumerable line-up changes, musical shifts and record labels.

The Mekons' first single, "Never Been in a Riot", written in response to the sloganeering bravado of The Clash's "White Riot", placed the band's down-to-earth humour in opposition to the posturing of many London new wave outfits. Lo-fi even by punk standards, it encapsulated the punk ethic of 'everyone can do it', which The Mekons carried through to their live performances by allowing anyone to pick up an instrument and join them on stage.

At one point, band membership is thought to have numbered over twenty, although by the release of the first album, The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen...(1979), it had consolidated around the creative nucleus of Andy Corrigan and Mark White (vocals), Tom Greenhalgh and Kev Lycett (guitars), Ros Allen (bass) and Jon Langford (drums). The album featured an eclectic mix of punk-related styles, from the angular groove of "Trevira Trousers" to the formulaic bubblegum of "Dan Dare". If it disappointed the critics (and the Mekons' record company,Virgin), for lacking the shambolic spontaneity that characterized the live appearances, it did nothing to prepare them for its follow-up - the proto-Gothic soundscapes of The Mekons. Released the following year, it set a benchmark for wilful new wave obscurity, with its ranted salvos of Marxist dogma and atonal fragments of guitar and sax, layered over funereal synth-drones. Oblique and impenetrable, it endeared them to no one.

Although the Mekons didn't formally split, its members' interests diversified into spin-off projects - of which Jon Langford's involvement in the Three Johns is most noteworthy. They had virtually ceased live performances by 1980, and an appearance at an Anti-Nazi League benefit in the summer of 1981 marked the end of the first chapter of The Mekons' history.

Drawn into the turbulent political wake of the 1984 miners' strike, The Mekons eventually re-emerged as a tightly focused and highly motivated outfit. Whereas punk had spiralled down into the constipated rhetoric of Oi! music, the Mekons regrouped in a musical territory that no one else would have had the nerve to occupy, their remarkable 1985 album, Fear & Whiskey, revealing them as a fierce, kick-ass country band, rolling along with an unstoppable alcoholic impetus. They gigged incessantly, spreading the word at benefits up and down the country, and lent tracks to compilations in support of the homeless, the stricken National Union of Miners, Pro-Choice campaigns and AIDS charities.

If subsequent albums failed quite to capture the frustration and self-destructive impulse of Fear & Whiskey, they did at least reflect an increasing cohesiveness in Langford and Greenhalgh's writing. Sleeve notes and lyrics paint the picture of a nightmarish Mekonville, a beer-soaked frontier town peopled by the unemployed and dispossessed, the ghosts of dead revolutionaries and the fetishized icons of another era - Hank Williams, John Wayne, Elvis.

New recruits Susan Honeyman (fiddle) and Sally Timms (vocals) added a new dimension to The Mekons' infectious dance sound, and this eclecticism saw the band gracing the WOMAD (world music festival) stage. 1988's So Good it Hurts experimented with elements of Cajun, Hawaiian and English folk music. Although ambitious, the venom of old was lacking, and the album was criticized as lightweight. No such accusations were levelled at 1989's Mekons Rock'N'Roll, which, from the brutal opening assault of "Memphis, Egypt" to the final strains of Tom and Sally's suicide pact ballad "When Darkness Falls", was an unflaggingly passionate work, and seemed particularly exceptional amidst the dazed hedonism of the late 1980s.

Throughout the 1980s, despite a diversifying fan base, The Mekons had maintained strong links with Leeds and the north, often recording there, and littering songs with references to their home town. However, partly due to the attentions of Rolling Stone and Village Voice rock critic Greil Marcus, they also attracted something of a cult following in the USA, and the turn of the decade saw half of the band relocating permanently to the States.

From this atomized state, The Mekons continued to periodically regroup, attaining sporadic artistic (if not commercial) successes with The Curse of the Mekons and I Love Mekons in 1991 and 1993 respectively. They rose above the parapets again in 1996, releasing Pussy-King of the Pirates, a startlingly off-kilter album backing the spoken word novel narration of postfeminist American writer Kathy Acker and their April 96 release mekons united - a book cum art show catalogue, accompanied by a 32-track CD of new material.

The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen... (1979; Virgin). The first album plus a few extra tracks. The lack of musicianship might grate by the end, but wry humour saves the day.

Fear & Whiskey (1985; Sin). Mekonstein's Monster - a head of folk, a body of country and a heart of purest punk. At times, passion outstrips musical ability in the race to the end of a song, but there are some glorious moments, not least on "Hard to be Human" and "Last Dance".

Mekons Rock'n'Roll (1989; Blast First). Their finest moment on record. Vicious and magnificent, a decade's worth of pent-up frustration reaches flashpoint. Alternately furious and agonized, the disenfranchised Mekons offer 14 blistering tracks, many of which still feature in live appearances.

The Curse of The Mekons (1991; Blast First). Subtle, atmospheric and criminally underexposed, featuring Sally Timms' incandescent voice on "Secrets" and "Waltz". Huw Bucknell

Taken from Rough Guide to Rock

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